Oh, dear. Am I in my cups again? Only if you’re talking about the u and u. You may drink liquor alone, with only one cup u, but liqueur is clearly meant for a more social – or romantic – occasion. You can see the smiling person e carrying the little glasses to the table. Perhaps it’s like some Bailey’s commercial: should the gentleman spill some on you, he may have to liqueur dress… or liqueur arm… or liqueur, ah, lips perhaps… Mmmm… there ain’t no cure for love, but there is liqueur for love! (In fact, Marie Brizard makes one called Parfait Amour. It is, so I read, made on a curaçao base. So at least there is a curaçao for love.)
Ah, liqueur, enchanteresse, verse l’ivresse et l’oubli dans mon coeur!* Oh, that’s actually not a love song, it’s from the opera Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. (You can watch Simon Keenlyside sing it if you want.) But Hamlet’s not drinking liqueur. Actually, he’s drinking wine. Liqueur in French is now used to mean pretty much just what it means in English, but it was formerly used more broadly. After all, it’s the French cognate of the English word liquor.
The root is Latin liquor, which means just “liquid” (and liquor is still used in that sense in some domain-specific applications in English, notably in some food processes). We got licur before 1300 from French, and respelled it later to match the Latin, but then we borrowed (and subsequently repronounced) the modern French form again in the 1700s for those special sweet concoctions which are typically brand-specific and sui generis. We may have “dessert wines,” but we have liqueurs rather than “dessert liquors.”
I do believe, when I first saw this word in my childhood, I thought it was another spelling of liquor – or, with that characteristic logic of English speakers, that perhaps it was the correct spelling, since it looked weirder and less logical. But I came to understand that it had a special pronunciation, and that meant there was something special and classy about what it referred to. And I had the clear sense it was a word my mother was more likely to say than my father was.
I taste a certain fondness in liqueur, and perhaps a feeling that its object should be consumed (not simply drunk) in quiet, civilized occasions with some velvet somewhere in sight. It’s not just liquor, which is said like licker and rhymes with quicker; this one has this cute turn of the vowel in the middle, like the sound of the liquid in a glass as you ting it against another, perhaps. (Of course one may say it the French way, or closer to it; I just happen to have learned it with the “le cure” pronunciation, and that’s what I’m still used to hearing.) It seems to make a U-turn in your mouth as you say it – well, what really happens is that your tongue laps forward and retreats like a wave, while your lips round, making a gesture like a faint, longing, incomplete air kiss, awaiting the enchanter or enchantress, or the perfect love.
*Oh, liquor, enchantress, pour drunkenness and forgetfulness in my heart.